By happenstance, I wound up reading Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Erin Morgenstern’s follow-up to The Night Circus, The Starless Sea, within just weeks of one another. Digital library loan hold lists just shake out like that sometimes. And I was struck by how both were, at their heart, doing much the same thing, which is to say, telling stories about the power of telling stories, and doing so through an apparatus of doors that lead into other worlds/stories, and how the encounters with the otherworldly can transform our world.
One of them, however, does it better than the other.
I liked Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus, just fine. It was atmospheric and entertaining but, admittedly, I didn’t think about it a lot once I finished it, and I’d be hard-pressed to conjure more of the details to memory now. But The Starless Sea has an awful lot of DNA in common with its predecessor: factions in a longstanding, shadowy conflict that are pitted against one another in relation to a placeless, timeless sort of institution, whether that is the circus or the Harbor, which is the kind of fantasy library calibrated to appeal to every passionate reader’s fondest wishes, in many ways (the Kitchen alone would make my life immeasurably better); not to mention a pair of lovers who come from different sides of this mysterious, long-running conflict. Zachary Ezra Rawlings (and get used to that full name because every time one of his POV chapters rolls around, you’re gonna hear it in full) is one of those lovers who gets drawn into the conflict between those who protect the Harbor and its stories (the Keeper, and the mysterious Mirabel) and those who seek to cut off all access to it, one way or another (the Collector’s Club, led by the mysterious Allegra). There are conspiracies, there are stories within stories, and while the construction of these interlocked narratives is impressive from a technical standpoint, it’s all ultimately a bit precious, and also a bit flat. Morganstern is very aware that what she is doing is clever, and goddammit, you will realize that, too. It’s flashy, it’s meta, and for me, at least, it held me at arm’s length and kept me from fully immersing in the story.
By contrast, Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a more straightforwardly constructed tale. The young January Scaller is raised in the early 20th century home of the wealthy (and, of course, mysterious–this is all but required) Mr. Locke, a member of the New England Archaeological Society. Her father works for Mr. Locke, visiting far-flung places in order to bring back new treasures for Mr. Locke’s collection, until one day, he fails to return from one of his expeditions. Meanwhile, January is vaguely aware all in this elegant house is not quite as it seems: she has had strange encounters with Doors (yes, capital D) that lead to other places, something that seems to alarm Mr. Locke, who apparently destroyed the first Door that January ever discovered. Meanwhile, the (of course mysterious!) Jane, a black woman sent to be January’s governess, also manages to get a book titled The Ten Thousand Doors of January into January’s hands, and of course the teenaged January’s interest is piqued given that her own name is right there. The book tells the story of a midwestern farm girl who meets a mysterious dark-skinned boy in a field after he walks through a Door, and what happens after, and of course this story intersects with January’s own identity and history, but Mr. Locke and his comrades pose a threat to her discovering the truth about herself, the Doors, and her own ability to write truth into being. The interlocking narratives of Harrow’s novel enhance the immersive quality of her story rather than hold the reader at a distance, and propelled me through the pages at speed.
What The Ten Thousand Doors has that The Starless Sea lacks, at least for me, is a specificity that lends it real texture and immediacy. Both novels, strikingly, feature POC protagonists, but it is easy to forget that Zachary is black or mixed because Morganstern makes very little of it. It’s even easy to forget that Zachary studies video games and narrative because none of these assigned qualities seem to meaningfully form, shape, or guide his character and actions, except at moments when Morganstern wants them to. It’s great that she writes a queer POC as the hero of her novel, and treats both his sexuality and race in a matter of fact way, but the latter, by being so anodyne, risks being misread much as racists failed to realize that Rue in The Hunger Games was clearly coded as being a POC as well.
By contrast, January is clearly written as a mixed girl in a white world, and while Harrow refrains from assigning her heaps of racial trauma as a result (thank heavens), it clearly and inevitably shapes her experiences and perceptions. It informs the narrative, too: Mr. Locke and his friends are so clearly unrepentant colonizers that they treat January herself as a rare and unique specimen, even referring to her as such. Their acquisitive greed, however, is countered by the curiosity and openness manifested by otherworldly travelers such as Jane, January’s father, and the characters in the book January is reading: people who are hungry to know without needing to possess, people who delight in difference and change and dynamism. Imperialism, Harrow’s narrative suggests, flattens possibility and demands that life remain static and stagnant in order to reinforce the status quo, and nowhere is this more manifested in the story than in January herself, as the child of people from wildly different worlds (not just races) who just may have the power to tell stories that inscribe new realities into existence.
For me, Harrow’s novel has stuck in my head more powerfully, both for the sheer giddy exuberance of its telling, but also for the richer themes that course along under Harrow’s deep delight in storytelling. Morgenstern’s novel is also a strong outing, but in the end, it feels like there were some missed opportunities to dig deeper into the queerness and the blackness of her main character that might have added new depths to the story.
At any rate, what we have on hand in this moment are storytellers who are keenly interested in looking at the craft of storytelling: what is this for? how do we do it? why does it matter? By answering these questions within stories themselves, these authors are pointing at the significance of this kind of work, and in our current moment, in which we are seeing how powerful the narratives we tell ourselves about the world really are, it’s not a bad thing to have multiple novels that call our attention to the power of both crafting and consuming stories.
But if what you need right now is a story that reminds you of the joy of stories, pick up Ten Thousand Doors of January and be transported.
The Starless Sea: ***
The Ten Thousand Doors of January: *****